Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Entry archive:

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, addresses the Ohio Christian Alliance conference, Feb. 18, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio. (Eric Gay/Eric Gay/AP)
Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, addresses the Ohio Christian Alliance conference, Feb. 18, 2012, in Columbus, Ohio. (Eric Gay/Eric Gay/AP)

Why can't Rick Santorum win over Catholics? Add to ...

It took 44 years after John F. Kennedy became the first Catholic to occupy the White House for one of the main U.S. political parties to choose a candidate of the same faith as its presidential nominee. That happened when Democrats nominated John Kerry in 2004.

Not since Pat Buchanan came in a distant second in 1996, has the Republican Party come even close to selecting a Catholic as its presidential candidate. Rudy Giuliani flamed out in 2008 before he even got off the ground.

More related to this story

So, Rick Santorum’s striking surge to second place in the current Republican contest would be something of a game-changer were it not for the fact that the candidate who wears his Catholicism on his sleeve is losing the Catholic vote to a Mormon.

Catholics accounted for 33 per cent of those who took part in Tuesday’s GOP primary in Ohio and they voted for Mitt Romney over Mr. Santorum by a margin of 44 per cent to 31 per cent. Overall, Mr. Romney beat Mr. Santorum by less than a percentage point.

A week earlier, in Michigan, Mr. Santorum lost the Catholic vote by six percentage points, compared to his overall 3 percentage point loss to Mr. Romney.

This is a telling indicator about how Mr. Santorum would perform among Catholic voters if he became the Republican nominee against President Barack Obama in the fall. Catholics made up more than a quarter of the electorate in 2008 and Mr. Obama captured 54 per cent of their vote – in part fuelled by his 67 per cent support among Hispanics.

While U.S. Catholics do not vote as a bloc – there are liberals and conservatives among them – Mr. Santorum’s primary performances suggest he would not be able to attract independent Catholic voters in the fall. Indeed, he might repel them.

After all, his current success is being propelled by evangelical Christians, who made up about half of the GOP voters who took part in the Ohio and Michigan primaries. While Mr. Romney’s Mormon faith remains a deal-breaker for a small number of evangelicals, the vast majority of them will vote Republican in the fall regardless of the nominee.

Catholics, however, are more likely to switch parties. In 2004, for instance, they chose George W. Bush over the Catholic Mr. Kerry by a five point margin.

So, why is Mr. Santorum underperforming among Catholics?

No doubt it has something to do with him saying that JFK’s seminal 1960 speech on the sacrosanct separation of church and state made him want to “throw up.”

And it is not just because Mr. Kennedy remains a Catholic icon. Rather, the ideas articulated in that speech, delivered to dispel the suggestion he would take orders from the Pope if he won the White House that year, are especially relevant in a country grappling to ensure the peaceful coexistence and freedom of multiple faiths.

“I believe in an America…where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all,” Mr. Kennedy said in 1960.

If that is the clearest articulation of the separation of church and state, then Mr. Obama’s contraception mandate – requiring even Catholic employers to include birth control coverage in their employee health care plans – might be seen as a violation of it.

The problem with the response of most Republicans generally, and Mr. Santorum specifically, is that their desire to inject religion into the “public square” reflects their conception of the United States as a “Christian nation.”

They are for religious freedom as long as it allows for Christmas trees at City Hall, and possibly a Menorah given the significance of Israel among evangelicals. But don’t get them started on allowing for prayer spaces on campus for Muslim students.

What’s more, Mr. Santorum champions the views of the most conservative wing of the Catholic Church, Opus Dei, an organization viewed as secretive and cultist by mainstream Catholics.

In the words of historian Garry Wills, Mr. Santorum “is not a Catholic, but a papist.”

And half a century after Mr. Kennedy’s speech, it seems most Catholics are not buying what Mr. Santorum is selling.

Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories